- Levinas and James: Toward a Pragmatic Phenomenology by Megan Craig
Marcel Proust once wrote: “truth will be attained . . . when [the writer] takes two different objects, states the connection between them . . . and encloses them in the necessary links of a well-wrought style . . . within a metaphor.” Inspired in part by Henri Bergson (1859–1941), whom Megan Craig’s Levinas and James identifies as the primary link between William James (1842–1910) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), Proust’s words might well apply to Craig’s own book, which employs a well-wrought style to bring into conversation its titular thinkers, and, in turn, the respective traditions of American pragmatism and French phenomenology with which they are associated. Aiming to “show the expansive space for new work that is generated by an encounter that reveals distinct strengths and weaknesses” (xvi), Craig draws upon the metaphor of the “face”—a key term for Levinas’s ethics—as the ethical embodiment of the pluralistic worlds of James’s radical empiricism. Her thesis is that “making these worlds [faces] vivid requires a pragmatic phenomenology, one that is plural, messy, specific, fallible, emotional, and personal” (117), a phenomenology that offers the possibility of hope in a world without closure, as well as a dialogue between traditions that have had too little to say to one another.
The book begins with Levinas’s accounts of subjectivity and ethics, as well as his critique of Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology as preoccupied with the individual perceiving subject. After establishing the historical connection of James, Bergson, Husserl, Heidgegger, and Levinas, Craig offers James’s radical empiricism as a means of placing Levinas’s ethics into an account of everyday experience that is neither mystical nor rigidly systematic. The book concludes by emphasizing the aesthetic dimension of James and Levinas’s work—with help from Philip Guston, whose paintings allows one to observe the “literary and poetic ambiguities of Levinas’s and James’s texts” (186).
In gauging the book’s success, it helps to distinguish two distinct aims. First, as an effort to “defend Levinas’s notion of ethical responsibility as both philosophically convincing and relevant in our own time” (190), or to demonstrate the overlooked benefits of reading Levinas alongside James, the book is an unqualified success. It helps in this regard that Craig is a clear and vivid writer with a gift for lyricism amidst exposition—e.g. “life swells in the interruptive flash of innumerable lights, glimmering like a lambent sea of sometimes dimly [End Page 296] and sometimes brightly burning bulls-eyes” (95). As a broader effort to bring pragmatism and phenomenology together, however, the book is less successful, for reasons that will be outlined below.
Since Levinas and James focuses more on Levinas than James (who does not appear until the third chapter), it is helpful to comment upon Craig’s treatment of Levinas alone. With particular attention to 1947’s Existence and Existents and 1974’s Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, Craig emphasizes four features of Levinas’s work. First, she prioritizes the everyday dimension of his ethics, which is important because a “realistic hope” is “the first reason for reading Levinas today” (xv). Second, Craig holds that the difficulty of Levinas’s prose is nonetheless an intentional effort to forestall any sense that ethics is easy, as “[Levinas’s] prose forces his readers to experience the dissolution of meaning that accompanies the fixation on any single point or term, and it does so by dismantling itself: contesting definition, enacting the indefinite openness of sense, and exploiting the metaphorical and poetic dimensions of language” (135). Third, Craig highlights in Levinas’s accounts of faces and insomnia (seen in terms of il y a, an anonymous “there is” to phenomenal life) an oscillation that stands apart from Husserl’s being-for-consciousness and Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, bringing into relief the precariousness of the individual consciousness as balanced between sleeping and waking and ever susceptible to interruption from without. Fourth, Craig argues that the intersubjectivity of Levinas’s ethics...